Present evidence in court: UK citizen Jagtar’s family on 1000 days of his arrest in Punjab

Jagtar Singh Johal was arrested on 4 November 2017, shortly after his wedding in Punjab. Courtesy family of Jagtar Singh Johal
11 August, 2020

30 July 2020 marked 1000 days since the arrest of Jagtar Singh Johal, a British national, accused of being involved in a spate of targeted killings in Punjab in 2016 and 2017. Jagtar was a resident of Dumbarton, a town in Scotland.

Three years ago, in November 2017, Jagtar’s brother in Scotland received a call from his wife, Gurpreet Kaur, telling him that her husband had been forcibly taken away. A month earlier, in October, Jagtar and his family had arrived in Punjab for his wedding. While the family returned to Scotland after the wedding, Jagtar and Kaur stayed on in India.

On 4 November 2017, while the couple were out shopping in the Rama Mandi town in Punjab’s Jalandhar district, the police appeared and arrested Jagtar. Kaur told me that a group of men suddenly descended on the scene, forcibly pulled Jagtar out of the car, and took him away. “I couldn’t make sense of anything,” she said. “I cried and cried.”

Kaur recalled the events that followed. “The night of 4 November was hellish,” she said. “We were running from pillar to post to find out where he was. We went to the city police station and then to the Cantt police station and then called here and there.” She added, “After sometime we received a call asking us to come to Bagha Purana,”— a city in Punjab’s Moga district—“where he was to be produced in court on the morning of 5 November. We went there and waited with the officials from the British High Commission. Without notifying us, they took him to court and away. All we were told was a five-day police remand had been given.”

Between January 2016 and October 2017, Punjab witnessed high-profile murders of atleast seven religious and political activists, including leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Shiv Sena. On 7 November, three days after Jagtar’s arrest, the Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh and Suresh Arora, the then director general of police, held a press conference claiming that the several of the targeted killing cases in the state had been solved. As reported in The Tribune, Amarinder said that a major conspiracy to fan communal disturbances and destabilise the state, hatched by the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI in Pakistan and other countries, had been unearthed. He named Jagtar among four suspects who had been arrested in connection with the killings.

According to a report in the Indian Express, investigators claimed that Jagtar was in touch with the alleged masterminds of the targeted killings—members of the Khalistan Liberation Force, a separatist group, including a KLF leader who was based in Pakistan. The report added that the police claimed to have “clinching evidence” that Jagtar had met Harminder Singh Mintoo, the KLF chief, in France and that he was also in touch with “radical Sikh leaders abroad.” In November and December 2017, the Punjab government handed over the investigation of the cases to the central National Investigation Agency. One of the chargesheets the NIA filed claimed that Jagtar had travelled from the United Kingdom to France to deliver 3000 pounds to Mintoo. “The statements of witnesses have established that Jagtar Singh Johal is a member of the KLF and that he actively participated and had complete knowledge of the conspiracy,” the NIA chargesheet said.

I spoke to Jagtar’s lawyer, Jaspal Singh Manjhpur. He told me that investigators are yet to present any credible evidence against Jagtar in court, and the only evidence they have shown so far is Jagtar’s own statement recorded at the police station. Manjhpur said that Jagtar currently has ten cases registered against him, eight of which are being investigated by the NIA—six cases are related to murder, and two are on charges of attempting to murder. The two remaining cases are being investigated by the Punjab police.

On 30 July, Manjhpur spoke in a webinar to mark 1000 days of Jagtar’s arrest. Referring to six NIA cases, he said, “From 1 November 2018 till date, no further proceedings have been conducted in these six cases. Till date we have not received total documents attached with the chargesheet by the NIA … The NIA court is adjourning the cases on a monthly basis. Next date is 28 August 2020. While the chargesheets were filed in April and May 2018, we are yet to receive all documents.” Manjhpur further told me, “I feel, with so much at stake, the NIA is deliberately delaying formal charging in the cases so that Johal and others could be kept undertrial for as long as possible.”

Referring to the first case in which Johal was arrested on 4 November 2017, Manjhpur added, “The only evidence that they are relying on is the confessional statement at the police station, which is not admissible in the court without further supporting evidence.” In that case, which is currently under trial, Manjhpur said that the prosecution had listed 74 witnesses, of which only 12 have appeared in court till date. Manjhpur noted that when questioned in court, the police’s key witness, Balwinder Singh, the deputy superintendent of police, was unable to detail any incriminating evidence against Jagtar. 

In his testimony in a sessions court in Moga in March 2019, during his examination by the prosecution, Balwinder stated, “No incriminating article/thing/document recovered from Jagtar Singh Johal in this case during my investigation. No documentary evidence was procured or is in the file regarding the links of other accused with Jagtar Singh Johal during my investigation … No article or any magazine pertaining to Jagtar Singh Johal recovered by me ... I cannot tell the exact date, month, and year of visiting of Jagtar Singh Johal to France.” Balwinder said that another accused, Taljeet Singh, had claimed in his police statement that Jagtar had given him 800 pounds which were used to purchase arms. However, he added, “There is no document on the record to show that Jagtar Singh Johal had handed over 800 pounds to Taljeet Singh and 3000 to Harminder Singh alias Mintu ... It is correct that during my investigation no material in the shape of letter heads or logo of KLF or any other banned organisation … was recovered from the accused.”

Jagtar’s family in Scotland questioned the police claims. They said Jagtar worked in the field of internet marketing. They added that he translated articles on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and its preceding events from Punjabi to English for Sikh magazines and websites. “When top cops of Punjab Police claim they have evidence against him, why is the evidence not being produced in the court of law?” Gurpreet Singh Johal, Jagtar’s brother, a practicing solicitor in the UK, told me. “Why is the case not moving forward and all that we get is a date for hearing put forward one more time? He has been to almost a hundred and eight hearings.”

Kaur and Gurpreet recalled how the police were eager to get Jagtar’s passport. “When I went to the police station looking for my husband, the police officials initially sounded very friendly,” Kaur said. “They said you are newly-wed and that they would let me see him if I gave them his passport, but I didn’t have it, and then they started sounding threatening.” Gurpreet told me, “The Punjab police had been asking his newly-wed wife about the passport. They also went to all our relatives, threatening consequences, causing them trouble in order to get Jagtar’s passport. They even called my home in Scotland, threatening to take away our kids.” 

Jagtar’s brothers, who had arrived in Punjab immediately after news of his arrest, travelled to Delhi to deposit his passport at the British High Commission. “I and my younger brother travelled to Delhi in one car, and sent his passport in another, knowing that we too could be caught by the police anytime,” Gurpreet said. “When we reached the British High Commission, we gave the official Jagtar’s passport and took a copy of the same and a letter confirming that they now held Jagtar’s passport.” Gurpreet noted that Jagtar’s “clean passport” is proof that he had not travelled to Pakistan. Referring to the police, he said, “That is why they had so desperately wanted to get hold of it.” Claiming that his brother was innocent, Gurpreet continued, “If he had done anything anti-India, why would he go there in the first place? And why would he jeopardise someone else’s life?”

Kaur described what she has had to face as a “nightmarish scene from a Bollywood movie.” She said she had only met Jagtar three to four times before they married on 18 October 2017.“When I met him the very first time, I thought I was going to marry him,” she said, adding that it was love at first sight. She held back tears as she recounted Jagtar’s arrest. “Even my mehendi had not yet faded,” she said. Kaur continued, “I don’t regret marrying him. Like every girl, I had dreamt of a happy marriage. I had no idea it would turn out this way. Every time I went to jail to see him, people asked me to remove or cover my choorah,”— wedding bangles—“but I didn’t want to. It feels strange now living in his house without him.”

She described how difficult it had been to get through each day. “I can’t believe it’s 1000 days, three years into my wedding,” she said. “I wake up and wish that the day goes by quickly and then it’s night, and another day and another night. Sometimes, I am able to sleep, sometimes not. Sometimes, I cry myself to sleep. My parents call and even they don’t know what else to say to me.”

Kaur said she has not had the heart to revisit her wedding pictures and videos. “I just can’t. The very thought makes me want to cry,” she told me. “When I tell myself that I should do something with my life, maybe study something or learn something new, I feel so tired and exhausted.” Referring to Gurpreet, she added, “I have also stopped asking bhaji about the case. Nothing is happening. I don’t watch the news. Life has stopped.”

I spoke to Jagtar’s family in Scotland, including his sister-in-law Mandip Kaur. “I, with kids and our grandparents, had gone to Punjab a couple of weeks prior to the wedding,” Mandip said. “With no mother-figure in the house, I did everything a mother would do at the ceremonies. The wedding went well and we returned on 1 November. Initially, Jagtar was to return on 1 November as well. He then decided to stay back for a while to get his wife’s immigration papers done.”

Referring to Kaur, Gurpreet said, “She was hysterical when she called us. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. The hysteria in her voice still haunts me. All she said was ‘Bhaji, jaldi aajao, India’”—Brother, come to India fast—“and I and my younger brother packed our bags and left for India on 5 November. Life has not been the same since that phone call.”

Jagtar’s brothers stayed in Punjab for a few days, but soon left for Scotland. “I was there when chief minister Amarinder Singh told the media that Jagtar had been detained,” Gurpreet said. However, the family began sensing that something sinister was brewing. Fearing a similar fate as Jagtar’s, the Johal brothers returned to the United Kingdom. “The hardest bit was telling my sister-in-law that we were having to leave,” Gupreet added. “I am still filled with guilt for leaving her behind.”

In April 2019, Kaur travelled to the UK. “Everyone in India told me that British government looks after its citizens and this ordeal will be over soon,” Kaur said. “I was given a quick visa to the UK to meet with the foreign secretary. I had not wanted to come to the UK without my husband.” On 24 April, she met with Jeremy Hunt, the then foreign secretary and asked for the UK government’s support. “I was assured they will do what they can within their powers,” Kaur told The National, a Scottish daily newspaper. Kaur continues to be in the UK. Jagtar’s family applied for permission to have her stay extended after her visit. It wasn’t granted and they have appealed the decision.

Gurpreet said that the UK values economic relations with India more than the human rights of one of its citizens. He said he had run from pillar to post, lobbying with his local member of parliament and other MPs, as well as with human-rights groups in the UK. Jagtar’s family said that he had been tortured in police custody. “They did not let the family see him in the initial days,” Gurpreet said. “We knew something was not right. Then he sent a handwritten letter through advocate Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, detailing the torture. I couldn’t share it with my family. Then I was invited to a TV show about him and asked about the torture, I broke down.” The Punjab police and the state chief minister have denied the allegations of torture.

Kaur said that she asked Jagtar about the torture while meeting him at the Nabha jail in Patiala, in Punjab. “He said ‘Don’t mention that ever again’ and I didn’t,” she told me. “I cried and he consoled me every time.” In December 2017, Jagtar’s father-in-law moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court alleging that the Punjab police had tortured Jagtar. “While the police denied torture and presented a medical certificate claiming no fresh injuries, they did not agree to allow examination by the medical board,” Manjhpur said. “The case is yet to come up for hearing.”

Meanwhile Jagtar’s family continues to struggle to cope with his arrest. “All celebrations, including my children’s birthday, are muted,” Mandip said, adding that there is a kind of gloom in the house at all times. “Nobody feels like celebrating without him. Kids have made a long to-do list for when their loving chacha returns.”

Gurpreet added, “After having so much fun at their chacha’s wedding, my children now have become so fearful that they don’t want to visit India ever again.” He said that all their lives had come to a standstill. “I and my father are burying ourselves in our work to keep sane,” he told me. “Before his wedding, I had got a new job further from Dumbarton, I had to refuse. The day I came back from India, I cried myself to sleep.” Gurpreet continued, “I feel like a failure. People say I am a good solicitor, but I feel I have failed both Jagtar and Gurpreet. I see her walking around the house, lost, and it shatters my heart. It’s the support of the people and the Sikh sangat”—congregation—“that keeps me going.”

Gurpreet said he believed Jagtar would be discharged in all cases if given a fair trial. “They should treat him like a human, with certain rights,” he said. “If they know they have made a mistake, they should admit it and let him go, let him move on with his life. If not, charge him, give him a fair trial and let him put his defence forward.”